Little things that affect work relationships


One afternoon a manager we’ll call Kassie sent an email to her
teammate, Harrison, explaining why she hadn’t included him in a
meeting with a group of company executives earlier that day. She and
Harrison got along well, and she wanted to make sure he wasn’t
offended. Two days later the email still hadn’t been returned. This
small incident made Kassie question their relationship. Why the sudden
rudeness — was Harrison actually upset? Were they really on “good”
terms? How should she act the next time they crossed paths? Harrison,
meanwhile, had “write Kassie back” on his to-do list but had just been
too busy to get around to it. He had no idea that his slow response
concerned Kassie.
Interactions with colleagues can often be confusing, not to mention a
source of stress. This is a phenomenon we’ve seen regularly in the
almost nine years we’ve each spent studying work relationships. After
all, how you relate to your coworkers can make or break how you feel
about your job. When you identify with them, for instance, you’re much
more likely to be happy with your organisation.
People tend to think about work relationships in the wrong way,
however. Evolution wired humans to appraise situations as either
“good” or “bad,” so they could act on threats and opportunities.
Instinctively, we assess our relationships with colleagues in similar
either-or terms. The problem is, there are many types of work
relationships — good, bad, and everything in between. A large body of
research not only confirms this but shows that individual
relationships often include a mix of both positive and negative
Most people also see coworker relationships as being fixed: Good ones
will always remain happy, and bad ones will never get better.
Consequently, we take our healthy relationships for granted, instead
of giving them the attention and investment they need. We also write
off those that have soured, instead of taking steps to improve them.
This, too, is misguided, because coworker relationships are actually
fluid: Even the most toxic ones can be repaired, and the most positive
can quickly spiral downward.
If you look closely, you’ll see that coworker relationships are
actually made up of a series of “micromoves” — small actions or
behaviors that seem inconsequential in the moment but affect how we
relate to one another. Micromoves are like the steps that characterize
a dance. You take a step, and then your coworker takes a step. Each
step, or micromove, can change the direction of the relationship. A
small act of gratitude or compassion — like saying “thank you” when
someone holds a door open or being understanding when someone is late
for a meeting — can bring people together and help build long-term
trust, researchers suggest. On the flip side, something as seemingly
mundane as Harrison’s delayed response can create tension and negative
feelings that may linger a long time.
Micromoves come in a variety of flavors, but according to Kerry’s
research, most either bring people together or pull them apart. Some
have a larger impact than others: A disrespectful comment in a team
meeting, for instance, will probably have a greater effect than a
missed conference call. Yet all micromoves have the potential to shift
coworker relationships. Here are a few scenarios that are
representative of what we’ve seen in our work:
You have a difficult relationship with a colleague. You learn that her
father recently passed away. You make it a point to stop by her desk
and offer your condolences. The colleague sees the conversation as an
olive branch. Later that week she offers to help you on a project.
At lunchtime, you and a couple of colleagues decide to go out to
lunch. You debate asking your other teammate to join, but decide
against it because the others invited you. When you get back to the
office, you notice your teammate looks mad. As he leaves for the day,
he tells you that he didn’t proofread a report that you need to send
first thing in the morning.
You’re working with a virtual client via WebEx one morning. As you
talk with her, you also casually answer emails and texts, only
half-paying attention to what she says. Later that day, you
instant-message with your boss, who mentions that the client expressed
irritation with your behavior in a later call.
These are just a few examples of how micromoves can shift
relationships. The possibilities and outcomes are innumerable. And
because relationships are all different, not everyone’s reaction to a
micromove will be the same. For instance, when Kerry, Dana Harari, and
Jennifer Carson Marr examined the effect of sharing a weakness with a
coworker, they found that it damaged relationships if the person
divulging a vulnerability was of higher status — but not when that
person was the coworker’s peer.
How, then, can you figure out which micromoves will be helpful? We’ve
come up with five guiding principles:
Understand your coworker’s point of view. Impact doesn’t always match
intention. What makes micromoves complicated is that we all have
different standards for evaluating them. Harrison saw the unanswered
email as no big deal; Kassie disagreed. But she should have stopped to
consider what was going on in Harrison’s life: Might he have just
returned from a trip and confronted an enormous amount of emails to
answer? Was he overwhelmed by another project? Or take the example of
offering condolences to a difficult colleague. That micromove may
backfire if your colleague views your action as insincere and perhaps
even manipulative. So before you make a micromove, ask yourself how
you would react were you on the receiving end. Then, after the move,
gauge your colleague’s response and consider whether it matches your
expectations. If it doesn’t, be ready to follow up with additional
Recognize that micromoves are not always intentional. If things seem
to have suddenly gone off-track with a coworker, an unintentional
micromove you made may be the culprit. Take the multitasking scenario
above. Use your client’s reaction as a signal that you need to be more
conscious of your own behavior. Identifying the cause of a colleague’s
reaction can keep a small misunderstanding from becoming something
bigger. That said, it’s important to note that an unintentional
micromove might not always be to blame. Figuring out whether a
coworker’s unexpected response is something unrelated to you could be
as simple as directly saying, “I get the sense something is bothering
you. Is it anything I’ve done?”
Understand your role in the story. We often get so tied up in our own
emotions that we lack a holistic picture of our coworker relationships
or the impact of our own behavior. If you take an outsider’s
perspective, you can gain clarity into the dynamics of your
relationships. To get more insight, answer these questions:
How would an objective outsider narrate the story of your work
relationship? What are its merits and challenges?
How would an outsider describe your role in the situation? Is your
behavior bringing you closer to your colleague or pushing the
colleague away?
What advice would you give someone else in your situation? Are there
specific moves you would recommend or advise against?
Journal your micromoves. Researchers recommend journaling as a tool to
enhance your performance. We think it can also help you create deeper
and more meaningful relationships. If there’s one relationship you’d
like to alter, spend some time jotting down the various micromoves
that you and your coworker have made in your five or six most recent
interactions, including the responses each micromove elicited. For
example, if you stepped forward (by, say, asking a colleague for
help), did your colleague step back (saying he didn’t have time) or
respond in kind (requesting your assistance with an issue)? Journaling
can help you recognize patterns in your relationships, and that can
illuminate micromoves that might improve them.
Know that “good” and “bad” micromoves aren’t created equal. We might
hope that a micromove that brings a coworker closer would compensate
for one that pushes that coworker away. Unfortunately, micromoves that
harm relationships are both easier to make and more powerful than
beneficial ones. In well-cited research, Roy Baumeister of University
of Queensland and his colleagues note that the effects of “bad”
interactions far outweigh those of “good” interactions. So if you
think you’ve made a micromove that may have harmed a relationship, try
brainstorming at least six possible micromoves to offset it.
The bottom line is that coworker relationships have a natural ebb and
flow. Every day you have countless opportunities to shape and reshape
them. The key is making micromoves that build the coworker
relationships you want, instead of just settling for the relationships
you have.

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